Utah's attorney general says he posed as a bodyguard and translator during a secret mission coordinated with authorities in Colombia to rescue more than 55 child sex slaves from a gang on an island off the country's Caribbean coast.
Sean Reyes, the state's top law enforcement official, said on Thursday he played the role of Spanish-speaking interpreter and muscle for the sting set up by Operation Underground Railroad, a Utah-based nonprofit organization that works with police to fight child sex trafficking worldwide.
"It's not a black-ops deal," Reyes, a Republican, said of the operation that took place last October.
The sting had the support of both the U.S. and Colombian governments, Reyes said. Two U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigators were also present, an advisor to the attorney general said.
Reyes accompanied a small group of men who posed as wealthy investors in a plan by Colombian criminals to build a child sex hotel on the Rosario Islands, an archipelago southwest of the resort city of Cartagena.
In video footage released by his office, members of the Colombian security forces are seen landing by boat and ordering everyone, including Reyes, onto the ground at gunpoint.
"Everything happened so quick. Bang, bang, the take-down," Reyes told Reuters in an interview.
"The hardest part was standing there listening to these traffickers, having them slapping us on the back and jubilant and thinking that we were all friends and partners," he said.
"I'm crawling out of my skin, as the father of a 12-year-old, when they bring out an 11-year-old and offer her up as the grand prize because she's a virgin and she's not been touched yet."
The Utah group said children as young as 10 were among those rescued, and that some 40 others were picked up elsewhere by local law enforcement.
"We're bringing them back into custody so they can stand trial and suffer the consequences of their depraved practices," Reyes said.
Colombian police officials did not immediately have details on the operation.
Reyes said he took part because "it's critical that people throughout the world understand what an epidemic human trafficking really is."
The attorney general, a father of six, said the arrest almost a year ago in Utah of a Guatemalan man, Victor Rax, showed the problem of child sex slavery striking close to home.
Rax was charged with smuggling in Central American boys, sexually abusing them, and making them carry drugs into schools in what Reyes called "the sleepy little communities of Utah."
Rax committed suicide in jail last April.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Will Dunham)
Watch a report on Reyes' participation in the sting, as aired on KSTU-TV, below.